A tale of two Philippines
January-March 2017
By: Andrew Phelan

We’re used to the term “developing country.” The term carries an implication that “developed” status is coming, it’s on the way, it is only a matter of time. In the Asia-Pacific, I would argue there are seven countries that have made it: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong SAR, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. These countries have a gross domestic product per capita of between $40,000 and $50,000, based on the most current World Bank data.

While China has made great strides since my first visit in the late 1980s, it still has a long way to go to reach par in GDP per capita terms with those countries. Indeed, the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – all hover around $8,000 to $10,000 per capita, far below the aforementioned rich club. Then there are the “in-betweens,” or low- to middle-income countries per capita. Southeast Asia has a bunch of them: Malaysia (around $10,000); Thailand ($6,000); Indonesia ($3,500); Vietnam ($2,500); while the Philippines, with its healthy GDP growth of 5 percent to 7 percent during the last five years, is close to $3,000.

Per capita gross domestic product is, of course, not the be-all and end-all measure of quality of life or success. There are many other indicators. Where a country stands on Transparency International’s index of corruption is a good indicator of equality under the law. Longevity is another. Air quality, public transportation, education, nutrition, the quality of and access to health care, and the distribution of income all matter.

Some years ago, I spoke at a Malaysian “Vision 20/20” summit. Malaysia has set the year 2020 to achieve a GDP per capita of $20,000. In this essay, however, I am going to focus on the Philippines, where I spent three months on assignment during its 2016 election campaign. The Philippines is also a useful comparator nation for Indonesia to measure its own progress.

Apresidential election brings great hope for the future. Rodrigo Duterte, the longtime mayor of the southern city of Davao, best captured that hope among the presidential candidates, and while he did not win a majority of votes, he won enough to secure a six-year term in Malacañang Palace. His campaign was, despite some offensive jokes and occasional foul language, what we have since become used to, and it was brilliantly executed. His campaign slogan, “Let’s fix this country,” succinctly summed up what ordinary, disenfranchised Filipinos felt and hoped for.

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